An Israelite schoolboy may have practiced his ABC’s—or gba’s—on the bottom line of this sherd from a clay storage jar. The roughly scratched inscription is the oldest extant Semitic abecedary, or alphabet written in the traditional sequence from aleph to taw (with minor deviations).

Written in a late Proto-Canaanite script, the inscription dates to the early 12th century B.C.E., when Israel was emerging in Canaan. Archaeologists discovered the inscribed potsherd, or ostracon, in a silo at ‘Izbet Sartah, an early Israelite settlement, identified by the excavator as biblical Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:1), in the hills of Ephraim.a

Unlike modern Hebrew, the letters on the ostracon are written from left to right; writing direction was not fixed until the 11th century B.C.E.b The scribe apparently used the alphabet as a model for the top four lines of letters. Although these consist primarily of meaningless sequences of letters, the beginning of line 4 may preserve the name of the scribe: “Oreph son of Nahum.”

The alphabet on the ostracon deviates from the standard Hebrew alphabet (see the sidebar to this article): The letter pe comes before, rather than after, ayin. But this probably cannot be dismissed as a beginner’s mistake: The same variation appears on an eighth-century B.C.E. abecedary discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud, a roadside waystation in northern Sinai. It also appears three times in the Bible: in the acrostics that make up the Book of Lamentations 2–4. This unusual letter order may have been a local Israelite variation of the alphabet used from the early Iron Age (c. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) through the Exilic period (c. 586–539 B.C.E.), when Lamentations was written.

Although some scholars have concluded that biblical acrostics must be of late origin because they presuppose a set alphabetical order, the early use of the alphabet by Israelites at ‘Izbet Sartah suggests otherwise.